Teacher salary negotiations in USD 373 have stalled, and not without some contention — with the Newton teacher representatives going so far as to call the action of the school board's negotiating team illegal during a session on Tuesday.
After a tentative agreement reached between the teachers and board was voted down (63 percent against) by district staff in September, the two sides came back together this week to readdress the situation — beginning with a financial presentation from Director of Fiscal Services Matt Morford on behalf of the board, which covered the school finance formula, current mill levies, restricted and unrestricted funds and revenue.
Following the financial presentation, the teachers shared five issues stemming from survey results after the termination of the tentative salary agreement that they wished to bring back to the table, including salaries, pay for unused sick leave, supplemental salary schedules, professional development days and the health insurance selection process. The teacher representatives then called for a caucus.
Once a caucus was called for, negotiations halted. According to a release from USD 373, the board asked for a proposal and none was made. Meanwhile, the teacher representatives were requesting to resume negotiations regarding salary terms, but were told by the federal mediator assigned to the interest-based bargaining process that the board would no longer be continuing negotiations.
"We spent an hour back and forth trying to find out if we could find some common ground where they would return to the public open session as required by law, and they told us they would not," said chief negotiator and Newton NEA President Cathlina Bergman.
Upon that end of discussion, the statement claiming the board's actions were illegal was made. However, during the caucus the mediator deemed the negotiations had reached an impasse, meaning the next steps would follow the statutory impasse process.
"What is next is either someone comes up with a brilliant idea to move things forward, or we go through the impasse process," said Deb Hamm, superintendent of Newton USD 373.
It has been years, actually decades, since this has happened in Newton USD 373.
During an impasse, active bargaining is suspended at the time it occurs — no longer following the interest-based bargaining process.
"We were following the process that our mediator guides us through," said board president and negotiations team member Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs. "We are now in a different process and I have not participated in negotiations having gone this direction before."
Currently, the next steps are uncertain for both sides, but negotiations will continue and Bergman noted information will be shared with the district teachers when it is made available. Just when that happens is yet to be determined, though Bergman noted the teacher representatives were ready to go back to the table on Tuesday — a second chance for which they will now have to wait.
"The teachers clearly weren't happy with what was originally presented, and we were disappointed and shocked with what went down," Bergman said. "We came back ready to continue coming up with ideas, but the board never gave us the chance."
If the mediator can not bring about an agreement in the mediation process, the next step is called "fact-finding." During that stage of the process, a federal arbitrator looks at the facts of the case from both sides. That arbitrator makes a determination of what should happen.
"That decision is not binding," Hamm said. "The board can agree, or not agree."
Items tentatively agreed to in contract negotiations in September included a $1,000 increase in annual base pay and a $1,663 increase in maximum schedule pay, establishing a team of teachers and administrators to annually review the supplemental salary schedule and make recommendations, utilizing the Superintendent's Advisory Council to review and provide input on health insurance options, development of an option for teachers to submit activities that occur outside of the contract day for one professional development day and provision of two additional personal days for teachers to use or carryover for use the next school year (as an alternative to paid sick leave). All of those items would've cost the district more ($1,050,000) then the maximum in new money it would have available ($1,009,743) and required cuts in other areas of the budget.
While the two sides are currently in an impasse, the board noted it is also willing to continue work on an agreement with teachers — "doing what it reasonably can" to accept a proposal that is in the best interest of the district, teachers, students and taxpayers.
"The board offered teachers more than they received in new funding," Hamm said. "My desire is to continue to work on the the salary schedule," Hamm said.